Next time you wash your hands or face with a bar of soap, or teacake you might just want to reconsider after reading this story.
Leonarda Cianciulli (14 April 1894 – 15 October 1970) was an Italian serial killer. Better known as the “Soap-Maker of Correggio” she murdered three women in Correggio between 1939 and 1940, and turned their bodies into soap and teacakes.She butchered the women and then cooked the remains into soap and teacakes—all in the name of breaking a family curse.
The slayings are horrific enough. Yet it’s the rationale behind the crimes that still sends a shiver down one’s spine.
While still a young girl, Leonarda attempted suicide twice. In 1917 she married a registry office clerk, Raffaele Pansardi. Her parents did not approve of the marriage, as they had planned to marry her to another man. Leonarda claimed that on this occasion her mother cursed them. The couple moved to the man’s town, Lauria, in 1921 where Cianciulli was sentenced for fraud and imprisoned in 1927. When released, the couple moved to Lacedonia. Their home was destroyed by an earthquake in 1930, and they moved once more, this time to Correggio, where Leonarda opened a small shop and became very popular as a nice, gentle woman, a doting mother, and a good neighbour.
Cianciulli had seventeen pregnancies during her marriage, but lost three of the children to miscarriage. Ten more died in their youth. Consequently, she was heavily protective of the four surviving children. Her fears were fuelled by a warning she had received some time earlier from a fortune teller, who said that she would marry and have children, but that all of the children would die young. Reportedly, Cianciulli also visited another Romani who practiced palm reading, and who told her, “In your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum.” Cianciulli was a superstitious woman, and seems to have taken these warnings very much to heart.
In 1939, Leonarda learned that her eldest son planned to fight with the Italian army in World War II. Terrified at the thought of losing yet another child, Leonarda resolved to protect him at any cost. Such a supernatural defense, she reasoned, would require sacrifice—human sacrifice. So the concerned mother set out to find her victims.She found her victims in three middle-aged women, all neighbours. Sources record that Cianciulli was something of a fortune teller herself, and that these women all visited her for help.
The first of Cianciulli’s victims, Faustina Setti, was a lifelong spinster who had come to her for help in finding a husband. Cianciulli told her of a suitable partner in Pola, but asked her to tell no one of the news. She also persuaded Setti to write letters and postcards to relatives and friends. They were to be mailed when she reached Pola, to tell them that everything was fine.
Prior to her departure, Faustina Setti visited Leonarda one last time. The fortuneteller provided Faustina with a glass of wine—a toast, perhaps, to brighter days ahead. The wine was drugged. Soon after the sedatives took hold, Leonarda bludgeoned Faustina to death with an axe. Cianciulli described what happened next in her official statement:
“I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them”
The second victim, Francesca Soavi, met a similar end. Cianciulli claimed to have found her a job at a school for girls in Piacenza. Like Setti, Soavi was persuaded to write postcards to be sent to friends, this time from Correggio, detailing her plans. Also like Setti, Soavi came to visit with Cianciulli before her departure. She too was given drugged wine and then killed with an axe. The murder occurred on 5 September 1940. Soavi’s body was given the same treatment as Setti’s, and Cianciulli is said to have obtained 3,000 lire from her second victim.
Cianciulli’s final victim was Virginia Cacioppo, a former soprano said to have sung at La Scala. For her, Cianciulli claimed to have found work as the secretary for a mysterious impresario in Florence. As with the other two women, she was instructed not to tell a single person where she was going. Virginia agreed, and on 30 September 1940, came for a last visit to Cianciulli. The pattern to the murder was the same as the first two. According to Cianciulli’s statement:
She ended up in the pot, like the other two…her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbours and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.
From Cacioppo, Cianciulli reportedly received 50,000 lire and assorted jewels.
Cacioppo’s sister-in-law grew suspicious at her sudden disappearance, and had last seen her entering Cianciulli’s house. She reported her fears to the superintendent of police in Reggio Emilia, who opened an investigation and soon arrested Cianciulli. Cianciulli immediately confessed to the murders, providing detailed accounts of what she had done.
Cianciulli was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. She died of cerebral apoplexy in 1970. While she was behind bars, she wrote a memoir called An Embittered Soul’s Confessions, in which she coolly described her crimes. The murders have inspired a handful of plays and films, and several pieces of evidence from the case, including the pot in which the victims were boiled, remain on display in Rome’s Criminological Museum.